Motivational Effects of a Study Group

Sina Takada, Kanda University of International Studies, Japan

Takada, S. (2018). Motivational effects of a study group. Relay Journal, 1(2), 339-345.

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Cooperative language learning has various benefits for learners, and one of them, motivation, was the focus of this research. As the concept of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) indicates, with assistance from other competent individuals, learners are likely to develop more efficiently than without assistance. In addition to development of skills, development of motivation can be the outcome of cooperative learning. Participants are members of the Study Group in Kanda University of International Studies who participated in semi-structured interviews. In the interviews, they demonstrated their perception of their motivations. More than half of the participants mentioned that the motivation toward language learning developed after participating in the Study Group. They all mentioned that they feel the urge to study, which is an indication that their developed motivations are not merely extrinsic but intrinsic. This research will provide insights into how learners develop motivation through interaction with others in communities of practice.

Keywords: cooperative learning, motivation, community of practice, Zone of Proximal Development


Autonomous learning spaces, such as self access centers, provide learners with access to various resources that help language learning. Among them, access to a community of practice, is one of the effective components. Research has shown how such communities function, but little is known about how communities of learning affect learners. The community to be studied in this research is the Study Group at Kanda University of International Studies (KUIS). The participants, members of the Study Group, demonstrated how they are affected by other members.

Context: The Study Group

The Study group is one of the language learning communities at the Self Access Learning Center (The SALC) in KUIS. The Study Group consists of freshman to senior students, most of whom are majoring in English, and there are no professional language instructors in the group. Its main activity is to help students to solve TOEFL grammar questions, and in order to do so, the members discuss and explain to each other the problems so that all of them can comprehend. Usually one or two leading students, who are capable of explaining grammar points, take charge of timing and grammar explanation, but any other members also help them.

Literature Review

Community of practice / Cooperative language learning

The Study Group is one example of a community of practice which are defined as “groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly” (Wenger-Trayner & Wenger-Trayner, 2015, p. 1). Wenger-Trayner and Wenger Trayner (2015) also explain that the community of practice is not merely a place where people sharing the interest gather, but shared practice takes place. Another concept relevant to the Study Group and more specific to the context of language learning is cooperative language learning. In cooperative language learning, “Learners should interact with peers who are more capable than themselves so that they can improve their current abilities” (Karim, 2018, p. 2).

Zone of Proximal Development

As “Learners should interact with peers who are more capable than themselves so that they can improve their current abilities” (Karim, 2018, p. 2), cooperative learning relates to the concept of Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), which is defined as “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers” (Vygotsky, 1978, pp. 86). In other words, learners develop better when they get assistance from more capable learners, in the case of the Study Group, than when they study independently. As the Study Group is composed of students of different agees and proficiency, it is likely that ZPD is fostered through the interaction amongst the students. Although ZPD typically refers to development of skill, knowledge, competence or performance, development of motivation can be a similar phenomenon to other examples of ZPD.


Among the important effects that membership of the Study Group potentially has, motivation is the main concern of this research. According to Dörnyei (1997), cooperative language learning fosters positive attitudes and increases motivation. Based on this belief, this research aimed to discover how and why students are motivated in such groups like the Study Group. Key concepts to this topic are intrinsic, extrinsic, instrumental, and integrative motivation.

Intrinsic motivation. According to Ryan and Deci, intrinsic motivation refers to “the inherent tendency to seek out novelty and challenges, to extend and exercise one’s capacities, to explore and to learn.” (2000, p. 70). Unlike other types of motivation, intrinsic motivation does not depend on the outcome such as rewards.

Extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation “refers to the performance of an activity in order to attain some separable outcome” (Ryan and Deci, 2000, p. 71). Instrumental and Integrative motivation, both of which belong to extrinsic motivation, define the target outcome. Instrumentally motivated learners aim to attain certain goals that are required for their professional, academic, and/or daily needs. On the other hand, integratively motivated learners aim to integrate themselves into certain communities where the target language is used. As Ryan and Deci (2000) explain, extrinsic motivation can differ in terms of autonomy, meaning that learners who agree to the value of taking the actions are more autonomous than those who merely follow orders.



Six members of the Study Group (five freshmen, one sophomore) participated in this research. In order to elicit valid information about the study group, participants are limited to regular members of the Study Group who participated in its sessions at least once a week. All of the participants belong to English department and their proficiency in terms of TOEFL score is somewhere above 450. 



Since affective factors are largely dependent on individual perceptions, I conducted semi-structured interviews. They were conducted entirely in Japanese, which is the native language of the participants, in order to avoid any misunderstandings or hesitation of speech due to inability to explain. The main question was “Do you think your motivation has changed after joining the Study Group? and if so how?”, and follow up questions are asked to elaborate on their answers.

Results and Discussion

I and another senior member of the Study Group recorded and analysed dialogues. Given answers were categorized into three groups: positive, neutral, and negative. All the sampled responses are my translations of the participants’ speech during the interviews.

Positive answers

Four participants demonstrated positive perceptions of the group. As sample 1 indicates, some participants expressed their feelings about the urge to study, which was affected by other members of the group. This implies that by being exposed to the atmosphere in which motivated people gather and help each other, learners are likely to increase their motivation. As they are not directly forced or pushed by other people, it could be regarded as an indication of intrinsic motivation, which is indirectly affected by external factors such as the attitude of peers. This is an important implication that explains how contagious the attitude of peers are, and hence importance of being motivated.

Sample 1: Everyone is highly motivated or conscious that they have to do (study) and I was driven by them, making me think I have to do something (study) all the time. For example, I do not only assignments but also + α (additional things) by myself.

Neutral answers

One of the participants stated that her motivation had been high even before joining the Study Group and she has been keeping her motivation high. Given that motivation can decrease for various reasons, it is potentially a positive answer in that she can maintain her motivation.

Negative answers

One participant responded differently from the other participants. She explained that her motivation negatively correlates to that of others around her. Though, she did not seem to recognize the reason for this negative effect, there are several possible reasons. First, excessive competition or comparison can demotivate learners. Although the Study Group does not encourage competition among members, most learners typically compare themselves to others consciously or unconsciously. Competition, by its nature, involves winners and losers, regardless of explicitness. Not only the visual measures of competition such as test scores, how much motivation they have can be a measure as well. If a learner feels there is an excessive gap between their motivation and that of others, he/she may be demotivated, thinking that he/she cannot surpass them. Second, freshmen are busy enough keeping up with assignments and getting used to the environment. Having less mental capacity than those who are used to it, feeling that they have to do something, on top of what they are doing, may be more stressful than motivating.

Sample 2: Interestingly, I am a kind of person whose motivation gets lower when people around me are too motivated. 


Other important findings

Some of the participants gave interesting remarks in follow up questions. It emerged that members consider the Study Group not merely an instrument of developing English proficiency, but also a community that they feel comfortable in. They commonly stated that their willingness to participate in the sessions is partially due to their willingness to meet other members. Through the interaction with other members, they developed relationships amongst each other, and the members are seen more as friends than merely as other learners. Taking this fact into account, their motivation for participating in the Study Group is similar to an integrative motivation in that a community takes a major role in their motivation. One factor that it is distinct from integrative motivation is that English is not the only language used in the community, rather it is a language to learn in the community. Considering these factors, groups such as the Study Group are not merely places to train students in skills needed for different purposes, but also a place to develop positive relationships and motivation among supportive learners.


While the Study Group is seen as a cooperative learning community where scaffolding takes place, it has different effects on learners apart from the quality of learning itself. Through interaction with other peer learners who have positive attitudes toward learning, the learners are likely to motivate themselves. Its mechanism seems similar to that of ZPD, in that learners develop better in cooperation with others. In this instance, what learners develop is not only skills or knowledge, but also motivation. Their motivations seem to contain relatively high autonomy, which is enhanced through interaction with other members. It is an important implication that the community supports not only language learning, but also motivation developing which is constantly applicable: learners who are intrinsically motivated are likely to study outside of the community, as one participant mentions conducting additional learning. Although the majority of participants stated positive effects of the group, it can have reverse effect for some learners. However, demotivation could have been caused by different reasons which are not apparent at this point. Hence, it is important to know the cause of such negative effects, either personal differences or potential drawbacks of the group, in order to promote such peer language learning communities. Furthermore, the practice of the Study Group is not fixed and is subject to change depending on interests, needs, and proficiencies of active members. Therefore further research will be needed to better comprehend the cause and effect of learning communities on learners’ motivation.


As the interviews were conducted only with frequent participants of the Study Group, variation in the answers may have been limited; their answers contain relatively positive perspectives toward their own motivation. In addition, as the interviewers, including myself, were senior members of the Study Group, there is a possibility that the participants avoided giving negative answers.

Notes on the contributor

Sina Takada is a student at Kanda University of International Studies, TESOL MA program, and has academic interest in individual differences and learner autonomy. He has an experience of peer tutoring and currently teaches English to both teenage and adult learners.


Apple, M. T., Silva, D. D., & Fellner, T. (2013). Language learning motivation in Japan. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Dörnyei, Z. (1997). Psychological process in cooperative language learning: Group dynamics and motivation. The Modern Language Journal, 81(4), 482-493. doi: 10.2307/328891

Karim, K. (2018). Cooperative language learning. The TESOL Encyclopedia of English Language Teaching. doi: 10.1002/9781118784235.eelt0172

McLeod, S. A. (2012). Zone of Proximal Development. Retrieved from

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-Determination Theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68-78. doi:10.1037/0003-066x.55.1.68

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological process. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Press.

Wenger-Trayner, B., & Wenger Trayner, E. (2015). Brief introduction to communities of practice.

2 thoughts on “Motivational Effects of a Study Group”

  1. I like the angle of not researching the content which was studied, but how participants were affected by being a part of the group. I have felt that many of my classes in past were enriched not by the content, but by the friendships that I was able to make after the class in study groups. Meeting with other students after class made me feel much more confident about the material that we studied in class. Even if we were all confused about the content that was discussed in class, we felt better because we knew that we were not alone in our confusion. Do you have experience in study groups? How were you affected by study groups?

    From a teaching standpoint, I was happy to see students form groups. It made me feel that I was not just teaching a class, but I was helping people form friendships. Not only do study groups motivate students, but they can also motivate teachers.
    I was reading an article entitled “Fostering the Work Motivation of Individuals and Teams” by Richard E. Clark. The focus is more on maintaining business motivation, but I think there are correlations that can be made for study groups. A question the article poses is “Imagine that 40 percent of the people in your organization decided that from this point on, they would work one extra day a week without an extra day of pay. What impact would their decision have on your organization’s bottom line?” (Clark, 2003) That’s essentially what a study group is, extra work for students outside of the classroom. But if the extracurricular work is gratifying for students, they would be more than willing to participate.
    You mentioned in the paragraph entitled “Context: The Study Group” that “The Study Group consists of freshman to senior students, most of whom are majoring in English.” Were the positive, neutral, or negative results from English majors or non-English majors? I wonder if motivation is affected by groups that are more topic specific, or if groups that are more relaxed are more motivating.
    I can relate to the participate (negative answer) stating that “excessive competition or comparison can demotivate learners.” I compare myself constantly to other foreigners who are learning Japanese, and never feel that my level measures up to theirs’.
    This paper is really well written. I can tell that you have done your research and have knowledge on the subject and you did a good job of relaying information to the reader without making the content difficult to understand. I enjoyed reading your study and would be interested in more studies on this topic. Maybe as a continuation study, how can peers best motivate peers within a study group?

    Clark, R. E. (2003). Fostering the work motivation of individuals and teams. Performance Improvement, 42(3), 21-29.

    1. Thank you very much for your insightful and encouraging message.

      As an answer for your question whether I have an experience as a member, Yes! When I first joined, I was not so passionate about the content of the study group. However, my motivation to see my friends in study group kept me joining it. Importantly, I came to enjoy the content, TOEFL, as well. In this way, I was affected very positively.

      As for the positive, neutral, and negative answers, they are all given from the students in English major.
      This might not be the clearest answer, but I believe the group had relatively relaxed mood. For example, some of them meet each other at lunch time to casually chat in English. However some of the members hold smaller sessions with a few other members, and it is possible that those small groups have different mindset and/or atmosphere.

      I am looking forward to doing more research on such groups of study. Like you mentioned “how can they best motivate peers” is really an interesting research question.

      Thank you for your comment and suggestions!

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